Coach House Books publishes and prints innovative Canadian fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and drama. The press was founded by Stan Bevington in 1965 and takes its name from the old coach house where he began putting out early works by many Canadian authors, including bpNichol and Michael Ondaatje. Since 1975, translations of Québécois literature have been an important part of the press’ catalogue. Poet, translator, and science writer Sarah Moses met with Alana Wilcox, Coach House’s editorial director since 2002, to discuss printing presses, bookish books, and translating French-Canadian authors.
Sarah Moses (SM): Could you begin by talking about the history of Coach House?
Alana Wilcox (AW): Coach House has been around since 1965, so we celebrated our fiftieth anniversary last year—not me personally, but the larger undertaking. It’s always been a press that focuses on innovative work, poetry, more difficult fiction, that kind of thing. It’s a long and convoluted story, like that of many presses: more difficult years, less difficult years, but we’re still at it, still publishing translation.
SM: What do you mean by more difficult fiction?
AW: I would include translation in that. By difficult I don’t necessarily mean fiction that’s hard to read, but that’s hard for people to think that they want to read—even though they might love it when they get into it.
SM: Could you tell me a little about the printing side of Coach House?
AW: We print our books here: we have an old Heidelberg printing press and binding equipment. Printing on location has always been the thing with Coach House. It’s interesting when the means of production is available to the writers and the editors—it just makes publishing a more tangible, real process. We always make the authors come in and glue the first copy of their book, if they can. There’s just something so beautiful about that.
SM: Do you print books for other presses as well?
AW: We do. We’re actually two separate companies: the printing company and the publishing company. The printing company prints for a variety of clients—other smaller publishers, some self-published content, some campus journals. From super-high-end stuff to memoirs about a family that made its money in concrete!
SM: You mentioned Coach House publishes innovative and perhaps more difficult writing. What would you say makes a Coach House book? How has that changed over the years?
AW: That’s a hard question. What unites it all is an interest in innovation and challenging conventions—trying to do things our own way, and looking for new and interesting ways of doing things. What’s different is whoever has been the editor at any given time. I think that changes the focus. I think it’s probably more feminist now than it might have been in the past.
We do about eighteen books a year: usually six of them are poetry, five or six of them are fiction, one or two are drama, and then some non-fiction. We do a series of books about the City of Toronto. Often our books are anthologies: we just did one called Subdivided about taking hyper-diversity into account in an urban planning context.
And then we have a little imprint called Exploded Views, which produces a wide range of very short 120-page books about cultural subjects. The most recent one was about the female orgasm, and the one we have coming up in November is about incorporating children into the decision-making of our entire culture, and how that would make for a better world. So kind of all over the place, but that keeps it interesting.
SM: How do you decide what to publish?
AW: For the poetry, we have a poetry board which makes those decisions. Two of our poets, who are really great editors, take care of the acquisitions and the editing. Emily Keeler edits the Exploded Views series and John Lorinc the Toronto books. They are all experts in their field, more than I could ever be. But I keep the fiction for myself, because it’s what I love.
SM: What do you look for in terms of publishing fiction?
AW: Something that I fall in love with, ideally unexpectedly. I don’t want to publish the same kinds of things that everybody else is publishing, so things that are—experimental is a tough word—but more inventive, or more interested in taking chances, trying something new, and speaking from perspectives that are less well covered. It must fit our list; it must be something good; and something I’m good at editing, because I know that I have limitations as an editor. I don’t want to take on an intricately plotted sci-fi novel. I just couldn’t; I don’t know how to do that, so how could I edit or publish it well? I wouldn’t even know what stores to put a sci-fi book in. But most importantly, does it have that thing that unfortunately is impossible to describe? You know it when you see it.
SM: What has been Coach House’s approach to translating French-Canadian works?
AW: Our focus has been pretty much exclusively on translations from Quebec literature because I’m comfortable with them. I don’t read French perfectly, but I can edit the translation, understand the sensibility and how it relates to English Canada, for example.
Coach House has always done really interesting translations. Nicole Brossard first published in English at Coach House in the seventies. But she has been publishing for fifty years and she was one of the very first translations they did here. They did all the translations in a beautiful blue cover with just white text on it. It was an amazing series and really prescient in terms of what was going to be important in Québécois literature. I’m trying to keep on that, keep that in mind, and try to live up to that.
I have good relationships with Québécois publishers, which helps a lot. They know my taste and what to send me. Rhonda Mullins, who does a lot of our translations—she won the Governor General’s Award last year for translation—does most of the reading for us at this point. She takes an initial pass through, sends me reports, we talk together and decide what’s going to work and what isn’t. Some things work really well in a direct context but won’t fly here. But it’s all taking chances, to experiment, to see what works. Most of the content has come to us that way. Pablo Strauss, whose novel we just translated, is an exception: he approached me with the book and it sounded really great so I took it on. There are stacks of it in there right now, unbound.
I’m still fine-tuning what the philosophy around publishing translations is. It’s just coming across things that look really interesting and that I feel need a home in the English language. We’ve had a terrible time trying to get any attention in America for them.
SM: I wonder if that’s generally the case with French-Canadian works.
AW: It is. There was an article in The New Yorker by Pasha Malla last year which was great: all about how we love translation right now in our culture—like Open Letter is doing great, Deep Vellum is doing great, New Directions is focusing more and more on translation—so why is every country in the world interesting except the country right across the border? Because Quebec culture is so different, you’d think that it would be appealing. But maybe they just don’t understand that that’s the case? I don’t know. It was a good article. It was a reminder that it’s an uphill battle, for sure.
SM: Could you tell us about a few titles that you’re particularly fond of?
AW: I’ll tell you about our most successful one, Jocelyne Saucier’s And the Birds Rained Down, which Rhonda translated. It did extraordinarily well in French, and then not well in English, after which it got picked up, randomly it seems, for Canada Reads. Last year singer Martha Wainwright championed it on Canada Reads. That was a pretty substantial bump in sales, which was really nice. It got this translation out to an audience that would never have looked at it twice. So that was great.
The two we’re working on right now—one’s coming off the presses, Baloney, by Maxime Raymond Bock—are both very bookish, which I love. Baloney is about an older poet who’s on his deathbed and is remembering back through his life as he talks to a young writer who’s having a hard time putting pen to paper. He’s like a hoarder of poems that he’s spent his whole life just working on, and you come to realize by the end that he’s really just a shitty poet, but it’s a very beautiful and sort of strangely moving story.
The other one is called The Island of Books by Dominique Fortier. In the present, it’s about a woman, probably Dominique, who’s trying to write a novel and trying to get back to writing—so there’s a real link between these two [novels]—after the birth of her daughter, and she can’t. She starts incorporating this story of a portrait painter in the fifteenth century. The woman he loved has died and he ends up at the monastery at Mont Saint-Michel. He’s illiterate, because he’s a portrait painter, and he actually starts copying manuscripts, because they need the help. It’s this beautiful image, sort of in the shadow of the Gutenberg press starting up—a totally lovely meditation on writing and books. It’s a bit nerdy, but it’s just the kind of thing I like to read. I feel so at home in this. I love both of those and realize I’m drawn to books about books.
SM: Has Coach House published translations of Canadian authors from languages other than French?
AW: We haven’t, but it’s something I would very much like to do. It’s a question of finding those projects and finding the expertise to manage them. I need someone who can read fluently, edit a translation, and who also understands Coach House. I can edit a French translation—I can identify where things have gone wrong, or I can help fix syntax—but I don’t know Italian; I can’t do that. It’s one of those on-the-list undertakings.
I have actually bought some already finished translations from other publishers. We did a Danish novel a year ago, called The Murder of Halland, by the poet Pia Juul. It was published in the UK by Peirene Press. We just bought it for North America and the translation was already done, which was frustrating because I probably would have edited it more to my own taste, though I think it is very well translated. It’s a great book about this crabby old writer whose husband gets murdered and you think it’s a whodunit, but it’s not a whodunit. So that was an interesting experiment. I hope to do more of that in the future.
SM: Are there any forthcoming translations we can be on the lookout for?
AW: The Island of Books isn’t quite done yet, I’m just waiting for some last queries. Next spring, we’ll publish a novel called Suzanne in English. It was originally titled La femme qui fuit and it was a huge hit in Quebec. It’s about a woman who lived during the thirties—and sort of the present. A fictionalized account of the author’s grandmother, who basically abandoned her family to go live a Bohemian lifestyle and wandered through all the interesting history of the twentieth century but who of course is absolutely pilloried for having left her family. I’m curious to see how that comes out. She’s sort of an early feminist.
Alana Wilcox is the editorial director of Coach House Books, one of Canada’s most celebrated literary publishers. She co-founded the Toronto-focused uTOpia series and the contemporary-culture series Exploded Views, and she has expanded the press’s catalogue of fiction in translation.
Sarah Moses is a poet, translator, and science writer. Her work has appeared in chapbook form, as well as in various journals, including Brick and TNTR. Sarah divides her time between Toronto and Buenos Aires.
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